CNS PHOTO | ALESSIA PIERDOMENICO, REUTERS
Pope Benedict greets Vatican-accredited diplomats during an audience at the Vatican Jan. 10.
VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict has denounced recent attacks on Christians around the world and singled out the government of Pakistan, asking that it repeal its anti-blasphemy law.
In his annual new year’s address to diplomats, the pope condemned the Jan. 4 murder of Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab in Pakistan, and bluntly said the country must overturn its blasphemy law, which makes insulting the Prophet Mohammed or the Quran punishable by death.
Instead of giving the usual survey of global issues in the Jan. 10 talk as has been the practice for years, the pope focused on threats to religious freedom in Western democracies as well as in countries notorious for violating human rights.
Popes have usually stuck to emphasizing broad moral principles in addressing global issues. It is highly unusual for the pope to call on a country to change one of its laws.
But the pope said Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy law often “serves as a pretext of acts of injustice and violence against religious minorities.”
Taseer supported the move to abrogate the blasphemy law and his bodyguard, who admitted to murdering his boss, has been hailed as a hero in some quarters.
Pope Benedict told the diplomats from 178 countries that religious freedom and religious diversity are not threats to society and should not be a source of conflict.
When religious believers are free to practise their faith, society benefits from an increase in upright behaviour, respect for others, and solidarity with the poor and weak, he said.
The pope also expressed concern about efforts to push religion to the margins of public life in Western democracies.
He denounced situations in which citizens are denied the right to act in accordance with their religious convictions, “for example where laws are enforced limiting the right to conscientious objection on the part of health care or legal professionals.”
The Vatican has insisted on the right of Catholic health care workers, including pharmacists, not to be involved in abortions or other procedures that violate church teaching on the right to life.
It is not permissible, the pope said, to infringe on the freedom of conscience out of concern to uphold “other alleged new rights” that are promoted by some sectors of society.
While not naming those “new rights,” he described them as being “merely an expression of selfish desires, lacking a foundation in authentic human nature.”
Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, said those “alleged new rights” included a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion and the right of homosexual people to marry and adopt children.
The pope told the diplomats there is no such thing as a “scale of degrees of religious intolerance” whereby a certain amount is acceptable.
Yet that attitude is found frequently, he said.
“It is precisely acts of discrimination against Christians which are considered less grave and less worthy of attention on the part of governments and public opinion.”
Pope Benedict also condemned educational programs that want to “mandate obligatory participation in courses of sexual or civic education” with content opposed to Catholic teaching.
Church leaders and Catholic parents in Spain have objected to a public school curriculum that that presents homosexuality and abortion in a positive light.
Lombardi said the pope’s reference to conscientious objection in the legal profession referred to the right of Catholic lawyers and judges to refuse to participate in cases involving adoption by gay couples, for example.